Rebuilding Zimbabwe, one book at a time

UNICEF Ireland ambassador Donncha O’Callaghan with children at the
Central Methodist School in Johannesburg during his 2009 visit. This
year he is urging Irish people to give children in Zimbabwe every
chance to succeed.

An education is the most powerful tool we can give the young people of
Zimbabwe, says UNICEF Ireland ambassador Donncha O’Callaghan

JULY 1st 2011: It’s hard to travel anywhere in Africa without thinking
of Nelson Mandela. Even on the flight down to Johannesburg “Invictus”
was one of the movies you could watch. To win some extra brownie
points with Melanie Verwoerd (who I was travelling with and is
originally from South Africa), I watched it again.

Well I’ll be honest with you; I only watched it until she fell asleep.

So even though I’m going to tell you about the schools and children I
met in Harare, Zimbabwe, last week, I’m going to kick off with a quote
from the great man himself who said: “Education is the most powerful
weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Before I headed off to Zimbabwe, I thought I knew about what was going
on there. Like me, I’m sure you’ve read about what has happened over
the past few years and none of it was good. But the country I visited
last week is a changing place.

To be fair, Zimbabwe has gone through a very difficult time — but
things are beginning to turn around. Zimbabwe is changing for the
better — its economy even grew by 7% last year.

But there’s no doubting the long road ahead, so I want to tell you
about the day last week that I went back to school in Zimbabwe and why
the children of Zimbabwe desperately need our help.

20 years ago or so, Zimbabwe’s educational system was the envy of much
of Africa. However the political and economic instability over the
past decade has resulted in an educational system that is now a broken
down shadow of its former glory.

Three years ago, after the Lions Tour, I made my first UNICEF visit in
South Africa. During my few days there, I met with kids who had, at
that time, left Zimbabwe because the educational system had fully
collapsed. These kids had travelled as far as Johannesburg for a
chance to go to school — over 400 of them had come on their own.

That day in 2008, I sat in a classroom of the Central Methodist School
in Johannesburg and met with three young Zimbabweans. They told me
about their dreams to become doctors, lawyers and teachers so that
they could return to Zimbabwe and help re-build their country. I was
blown away by their drive and ambition. It won’t come as a surprise
when I tell you that I was nothing like them when I was their age!

Last week, I met young teenagers in the Prince Edward High School in
Harare who have that same drive and commitment to their futures. It’s
a school which struggles to have enough books for its pupils (they
currently share about 1 book between 4 pupils) and some days, there’s
just no water available for the toilets and bathrooms and there’s
1,200 pupils in the school.

But they just get on with things — they have to — finding ways to make
things happen despite these daily challenges. There’s a country to
re-build and both pupils and teachers know they’ve an important role
to play in the re-construction.

Since the political situation in Zimbabwe has stabilised, UNICEF has
been working hard to rebuild so many of the country’s social services
and the educational system is no exception.

In the past year alone, UNICEF has delivered over 15 million text
books — reaching every primary school across Zimbabwe — how impressive
is that for a statistic? The next phase of this plan for UNICEF is
getting 8.5 million school books into secondary schools and this will
commence shortly.

So hopefully, the pupils I met last week in Prince Edward’s won’t have
much longer to wait until they each have school books of their own.
And lads, no doodling on them when you get them!

As well as the strong emphasis on study and exam success for the
pupils, the school actively encourages the boys to get involved in as
many extra-curricular activities as they can. So there’s rugby, chess,
athletics, volleyball, swimming, soccer, debating and korfball (bonus
points if you know what that one is — I had to Google it myself!) to
name just a few.

I didn’t have to be asked twice when I saw the Junior School Rugby
Team training during our visit. I jumped right in and gave the young
lads a coaching session there and then. Running around the pitch
definitely gave me a good start in the pre-season fitness stakes; I
was sweating buckets after it!

The children I met in Harare have been through so much but yet,
they’re still smiling and planning their futures. They want to succeed
in everything they do — whether it’s their studies or their sports. An
education is the most powerful weapon that we can give the young
people of Zimbabwe and I know just given the chance, they can change
their country.

Over the years, people in Ireland have always supported UNICEF’s
continuing work in Zimbabwe. Remember, UNICEF relies entirely on
voluntary donations and doesn’t get a cent from the United Nations to
complete its work for children across the world. It’s important to
also let you know that funds raised for UNICEF do not go to the
Government in Zimbabwe.

So I’m writing this today to ask you to support UNICEF to ensure we do
all that we can to give these children in Zimbabwe every chance to
succeed. The future of Zimbabwe depends on them and they are well up
for the task. We must help them. Visit www.unicef.ie to make a
donation today. Thank you.

This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday,
July 23, 2011